Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Thank God for Failure

When times get rough, I look for inspiration. And between awesome blogs and TED Talks, there's no better source of inspirational material than the interweb. Today someone on facebook posted a link to a YouTube blog with a list of the top 10 most-viewed commencement addresses on the site. Having just heard a great commencement address last week, I sat down and watched almost all of the videos on the list. The common theme highlighted in the videos I watched (except for Meryl Streep's) is the inevitability, the importance and the gift of failure.

Did you know that Oprah started out as a news anchor? And that she only became a talk show host because she was fired from her anchor position, but the network didn't want to break her contract? All these influential shapers of culture experienced failures earlier in their life that made the way for the success they would achieve later. Without failure and rejection, it would've been impossible for them to become who they are today.

This hits home for me, as failure has long been a major anxiety of mine. I have been overly concerned with gaining and keeping the approval of others, and am therefore terrified to fail should the people I love be disappointed and leave me. This translates into two different types of behavior: 1) Working very hard, at any cost, to ensure my success, and 2) Not trying at all. Not trying is a pretty clever way to avoid failure, but it's also a surefire way to never achieve anything...which is really just a much less interesting way to fail. There are a bunch of variations of this quote, but Mark Twain's is my favorite: "Twenty years from now you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn't do than by the ones you did do. So throw off the bowlines. Sail away from safe harbor. Catch the trade winds in your sails. Explore. Dream. Discover."

Even I, who am a hot mess on boats, can appreciate the nautical-themed call to bold action. No one ever got anywhere fantastic by playing it safe. As ambition-less as I've become recently, I can still remember how vital boldness is to great success. There is a requisite risk that things may not work out the way you initially thought they would, but isn't that usually a good thing? Where would Oprah, or the world, be if that TV producer hadn't fired her? She pursued her passion (news anchoring), it didn't work out, and she was rewarded with something so much larger and more fulfilling than she thought possible (OWNing everything). We mustn't limit our vision of success, lest we miss out on opportunities that fall outside what we could imagine.

Failure and rejection can therefore be reframed as information rather than symptomatic of some horrible character flaw. If something doesn't work out, perhaps it is because it's just not the right path. This can be hard to let in when you're grieving the loss of some potential or previously cherished success, but open to it if you can. Sometimes now, when faced with failure, I get excited because it means that something is coming that's an even better fit. If you can't muster this infuriatingly cheery optimism, just ask and I'll give you some of mine.

Before we can fail, though, we have to try. And I'm with Mr. Twain on this one: I'd rather raise an eyebrow later at my knucklehead choices than miss out on all the learning that making "mistakes" and "failing" has provided. It's better to have loved and lost, right? I think so.

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